Angela Davis Now : On a Quiet Street in Oakland, the Former Radical Activist Has Settled In but Not Settled Down

Times Staff Writer

The house, a tile-roofed California ranch style on a quiet hillside street, is a cookie-cutter copy of its neighbors. But the replica of an FBI “most wanted” poster that hangs in a hallway is a portrait of the woman of the house. She is Angela Davis.

At a cursory glance, the other trappings suggest a sellout, a capitulation to bourgeois values: two dogs, leather sofas, glass tables, a deck with a view.

But there’s that poster. And, sharing wall space in the living and dining rooms, a “Free Nelson Mandela” bill and a faded photo of black shanties in the shadow of the steel mills in Birmingham, Ala., near where Davis grew up.


Angela Davis, at 45, has not retreated from the war against racism and sexism and political oppression wherever she sees those things. Perhaps, she acknowledges, “there’s a certain mellowing that comes with the process of aging. One becomes a little less impatient . . . but I don’t like to think of myself as having mellowed.”

‘I’m Still Passionately Concerned’

“I think that I’m still as intensely and passionately concerned about all of these issues as I was 20 years ago.”

One thing that is gone is the exaggerated Afro. A cascade of brown dreadlocks now frames the familiar face. Davis is wearing a purple tunic top over tight jeans tucked into gray cowboy boots with silver nailheads. She is tall, and very slender.

Settling on a sofa, she stretches out her legs and fields a question about Winnie Mandela, the embattled heroine of black South Africa and wife of jailed African National Congress leader Nelson R. Mandela. Recently, Mandela was accused of aiding her bodyguards in fatally beating a black teen-ager she accused of being a police informant.

Davis and Winnie Mandela have never met, but she says, “I feel very connected with her” in her enduring fight for the rights of black people.

She adds, “I can’t say what Winnie Mandela did and what she didn’t do, but I do know that she is a woman of courage . . . that she has come to be synonymous with the quest for liberation in South Africa and therefore the assault on her has the objective impact of weakening the movement.”


It is significant, she believes, that the accusations against Mandela, whose husband is serving a life sentence, “come at a time when the anti-apartheid movement around the world is not as active as it has been in recent times.”

Davis says she is “very upset” that 14-year-old Stompie Mokhetsi Seipei was killed. But it disturbs her also that anti-apartheid groups there, urging blacks to distance themselves from Winnie Mandela, are “announcing to the world that she was bad” rather than sitting down and engaging in dialogue.

‘An Intensely Loyal Woman’

She “can’t imagine,” she says, that Winnie Mandela could have committed the atrocities charged but, she adds, “she is an intensely loyal woman and maybe reluctant to disassociate herself from people who have protected her.”

Davis is being interviewed on the eve of a promotional tour for her new book, “Women, Culture, & Politics,” in which she singles out Winnie Mandela for her “tenacity and resilience,” her “unrelenting courage” and “a gentleness that endears her to most.”

In her book, she also addresses the empowerment of Afro-American women, the politics of black women’s health, the black family and “the crisis of capitalism”--and she urges black women to become involved in the campaign against nuclear arms.

At 7 p.m. Thursday Davis is to speak at the Sisterhood Bookstore in Westwood, close by the UCLA campus where she rocketed to prominence in 1969 when the UC Board of Regents fired her from her new two-year $9,600-a-year job as acting assistant professor of philosophy after learning that she was a member of the Communist Party U.S.A.


Twenty years have passed since her firing--which was appealed in the courts while she taught one year at UCLA--but was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The controversy split the campus and was a baptism by fire for the new young chancellor, Charles E. Young, who called it “a Greek tragedy.” With strong support from the UCLA Academic Senate and, at the polls, from students, liberals rallied around Davis under the banner of “academic freedom” and charged “McCarthyism” by the conservative regents (then-Gov. Ronald Reagan was an ex-officio member).

Then, in August of 1970, only two months after the regents had fired her a second and final time, citing her continuing advocacy of “extreme” and revolutionary views, Davis was again in the news. She was charged with murder, kidnaping and conspiracy in a Marin County courtroom shootout in which a judge and three convicts were killed during an attack designed to gain freedom for “The Soledad Brothers,” three black inmates accused of murdering a guard in Soledad State Prison. One of the “brothers” was Black Panther George Jackson, who was killed in a breakout attempt at San Quentin just a year later. Davis called his death “the loss of an irretrievable love.”

Davis went underground but, in October, 1970, was tracked down by the FBI at a New York motel. After 17 months in prison, she was brought to trial in San Jose. The evidence against her: The guns used in the shootout were registered to her. She had not been otherwise linked to the scene.

‘Happiest Day of My Life’

In June, 1972, a jury of 11 whites and one Latino found her not guilty of all three charges. Davis said, “This is the happiest day of my life.”

Now, reflecting on the episode that made her an international figure, Davis says, “I feel angry, but I don’t feel bitter. I learned at a young age to channel my anger so that it did not become a self-destructive kind of process.”

For a while, threats on her were commonplace. “I still get letters,” she says--only a few days ago a crudely penciled “I am going to kill you” note was sent to her at San Francisco State, where she has been a part-time professor of philosophy and women’s studies for the last decade. But she dismisses these, explaining, “I’m not really a person who is afraid.”


What of the lasting impact of the case, the coming together of blacks and whites in the “Free Angela” campaign?

“It was not so much me as an individual who made the difference,” Davis says. “My case came at a particular moment in the evolution of the black movement in this country,” when dedicated people learned how to organize.

Otherwise, she says, she might have been forgotten after one minute of fame. She says: “Of course the press represented me as a nice black middle-class girl who had somehow gone off the path (and) probably created a certain fascination with my case that didn’t really exist.”

The Public Figure

She became a public figure, she insists, reluctantly. “Probably if I had known what was going to happen as a result of accepting the job at UCLA, I would have decided not to take it. . . . I’m not cut out for that. I would have been a radical, but I would not have been the spokesperson.”

The trial itself, she believes, “made a big difference. It demonstrated that it was possible for (the) people to win.” She says that many who believed she was innocent told her later of their apprehension in view of what they saw as the state’s “real compulsion to guarantee my conviction. So they were frightened. I was frightened myself, very frightened.”

She adds, “The fact that I am free and able to do what I’m doing bears witness to the ability of organized movements to reverse the agendas of the powerful forces in this society, even presidents, governments, the FBI.” Without the grass-roots surge of support, Davis says, “I truly believe I would have been convicted.”


Aware of Racism

With the eyes of the world on that courtroom, Davis says, “we were able to question prospective jurors about their racial politics, their gender politics, their attitudes toward Communists.” The trial, she believes, made many people who’d once been oblivious to racism aware of their accountability “not simply to me but to millions of people all over the world.”

She smiles and says, “a million dollars, that’s how much was spent on that trial. They wanted to put me away. They really did want to put me away.”

Since, Davis has been criticized in some quarters for failing to be a radical enough radical, for indulging in “revolutionary heroics” while the world marched on, for permitting herself to be “exploited” as a celebrity by the Communist Party U.S.A., an organization that since the ‘50s has been viewed by many radicals as moribund.

“I still consider myself a revolutionary,” she says. “I think that I am militant. I have tried to change with the changing of the times,” which, she says, dictates different types of protest. Davis does not advocate violence and believes terrorism is non-productive.

Most commonly, Davis says, people express surprise that she has remained involved “when so many other people, members of the Black Panthers, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin,” have dropped out.

Throughout the ‘80s, she has not shied away from controversy. Organizing a demonstration in Montgomery, Ala., in behalf of a black man, Johnny Harris, a convicted murderer/rapist who she believes to be unjustly on Death Row, being arrested during an anti-apartheid demonstration in Berkeley.


Juggling Different Roles

She speaks of “unfinished areas” of her life, of “trying to juggle different roles” without shortchanging any. She loves teaching, for example, but is reluctant to commit to it full time and lose her “connections with grass roots.”

She would like more time for writing and is writing a book about the role of black women’s music of the ‘20s and ‘30s in shaping social consciousness, focusing on Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.

The book just out, her fourth, is essentially a compilation of recent lectures, many of these at colleges. She expresses her amazement that she has not become “a historical relic for the children born to members of my generation.”

In the book, she condemns the contemporary women’s movement for its “exclusionary policies,” its failure to address the concerns of women of color and poor women. And she suggests that its emphasis on the nouveau poor--middle class women separated or divorced--smacks of racism. Since slavery, Davis says, black women have been “painfully aware” of economic deprivation.

Case of Welfare Mothers

She debunks as “myth” the idea that “welfare mothers squander taxpayers’ hard-earned money on Cadillacs and fur coats,” noting that the average monthly payment is $111. And she asks, “Would the withdrawal of welfare payments resurrect dead fathers, annul divorces or cause unemployed husbands to return to their wives and children?”

And she emphasizes that “black teen-age girls do not create poverty by having children” but rather become young mothers “precisely because they are poor” and without access to education, good jobs, creative recreation--and contraception.


Noting the absence of women of color in numbers in the abortion rights movement--a movement that she supports wholeheartedly--Davis points out that banning federal funding for abortions has effectively denied them to poor women while, at the same time, most federally funded involuntary sterilizations are performed on poor women and women of color. During the interview, Davis speaks of a resurgence of racism in America, citing among other incidents the Bernhard Goetz case. (Goetz, a white man, shot four black youths in a New York subway in December, 1984, after one of them approached him for $5. Goetz, who said he feared they planned to rob him, is serving a one-year sentence for illegal possession of a gun.)

And she mentions David Duke, the one-time Ku Klux Klan wizard recently elected as a Republican to the Louisiana legislature. “A metaphor for the trend,” she notes.

Both of these things were possible, she believes, because the Reagan Administration “created a climate” that legitimatized racism.

By contrast, Davis points out, many white people supported the candidacy of Jesse Jackson. She mentions citizen groups that have formed to protest racist incidents in their communities and she concludes that “decades of attempting to bring about racial equality have had their effect. Now I think we can say that there is a distinct anti-racist majority in this country for the first time.”

Racial Violence

What is needed today, she believes, is legislation to make racial violence a specific crime, with specified punishment, so it cannot be dismissed under such guises as malicious mischief.

When Davis talks about priorities, health issues, both personal and political, are among them. She has kicked a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and become a vegetarian and a dedicated runner.


As an activist, she thinks it is “really important to challenge this surrogacy for profit movement” (seven states have made surrogacy-for-pay illegal). Not only does it invite exploitation of Third World women, she says, but with embryo transplants a possibility in the near future, women of means may opt to avoid the inconvenience of pregnancy by hiring poor women and women of color to carry their babies. “And that,” Davis says, “to me reeks of slavery.”

She is concerned too that new reproductive technologies that offer hope to infertile women are being pushed on women to a degree that “it imposes on them a motherhood compulsion. For centuries we have been challenging this definition of womanhood as synonymous with motherhood . . . now, as apparent progress is being made . . . there’s a notion that a woman has to do everything that is available in order to try to be a mother.”

Fight Against Social Ills

Davis talks about money to fight AIDS, money for socialized child care, money to create jobs and money for education--and she thinks “there should be additional taxes” to pay for these--equitable taxes on corporations, combined with cutbacks in the military budget.

She has also proposed industrialization of housework, “teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling” with high-tech equipment, eliminating the need for wives or husbands to do housework, a task she considers “oppressive.”

In the past, she has spoken glowingly of the Soviet Union, which in 1979 bestowed on her the Lenin Peace Prize. Is that same Soviet Union now edging toward capitalism?

Visit to Soviet Union

No, Davis says, “they are making some very important and much needed structural changes . . . I find it very exciting.”


On a recent visit to the Soviet Union, Davis was impressed by the “enthusiasm” of the man on the street for glasnost. “Of course, there is some confusion,” she says, some feeling of abandonment, but “there is more a sense of relief than confusion.”

As for the health of the Communist Party U.S.A., Davis, who shared the national ticket with chairman Gus Hall in 1980 and 1984, says it “has a potential” to be a cutting-edge organization once again and she notes that “many of the (other) organizations that had considered themselves radical and revolutionary in the past are gone.”

Angela Davis is a child of the South who grew up in Birmingham when it was zoned for blacks and for whites and the Davises couldn’t legally cross the street in front of their house into a white zone.

She left Birmingham at 15 when, through an American Friends Service Committee program, she was able to enroll in a private school in New York. Then came graduation magna cum laude from Brandeis University and studies at the Sorbonne and at university in Frankfurt, Germany.

Today, she’s just one of the neighbors in the community in the hills of Oakland where she has lived for the last 10 years, a community that is now largely black. “It’s not really a neighborhood,” she says but, rather, a place where working people live. “I miss the kind of relationships that neighbors had when I was growing up.”

The flip side of that coin is that it affords her privacy. She has what she describes as a “cup of flour” relationship with next-door neighbor Albertine Foster, the widow of Marcus Foster, the black Oakland schools superintendent who was shot to death in November, 1973, by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. It was the first act claimed by the SLA, which three months later kidnaped Patricia Hearst.


Keeping in Touch

Davis is still in touch with old friends, including Johnnie Spain, who was a co-defendant in the trial of the San Quentin Six, implicated in the bloody escape attempt in which George Jackson, three guards and two other inmates died. “He just got out last month,” Davis says. “We’re close . . . we visit each other.”

But UCLA seems hardly more than an episode in her life. If the university were to offer her a professorship today, she says, laughing, “I might think about it.”

Her only marriage, in 1980, to Hilton Braithwaite, a photographer who was a faculty colleague at San Francisco State, ended in divorce several years later.

Her life is busy. She is a founder and co-chair of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, on behalf of which she has led demonstrations in 48 states since 1972. She is on the national board of the National Political Congress of Black Women and on the board of the Atlanta-based National Black Women’s Health Project.

In 1985, in Nairobi, she led hundreds of women in a protest against the appointment of the President’s daughter, Maureen Reagan, as head of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Conference on Women.

The Lecture Circuit

Frequently, Davis lectures on college campuses--”there is no way that I could possibly accept” all the requests, she says. “Young people who were hardly born in the late ‘60s seem to be not only concerned about racism, sexism, issues affecting working people” but want to act on those concerns.


Sure, they also want to get their MBAs and get on with the business of making money but that, says Davis, is nothing new.

In the ‘60s, she says, “white students would come out en masse around issues related to the war in Vietnam. They would not come out en masse to defend black political prisoners or associate themselves with the Black Panther Party.” Today, she believes, white students understand that fighting racism is not an act of charity but is very much in their self-interest.

Davis’ widowed mother, Sallye, a retired schoolteacher, is a frequent visitor to Oakland, but still spends some time in Birmingham, in the Victorian house in which Davis was reared.

Remembering how the youngsters used to think it was a haunted house, Angela Davis smiles and says, “My mother’s now working fervently on having it declared an historical monument.”

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